Jamaican hotels were an interesting experience all to themselves (check out my Jamaica’s Real Nature and Goat Islands blogs if you haven’t already). Despite having a short list of recommendations to begin with, the selection process involved wading through all-inclusive designations that were sometimes buried in fine print, not being dissuaded by photo galleries littered with images of daunting gates, heavily toothed watch dogs and gun-toting guards, and then surviving cumbersome booking processes. At literally every hotel I stayed at outside of Kingston, and some were really quite nice, there was at least one glitch…
Hilton Rose Hall Resort & Spa, Montego Bay –
It’s a Hilton, how complicated could it possibly be, right? Seemingly not at all on the surface, but it didn’t take long to realize this wasn’t your typical Hilton. Online booking was easy, but arranging transportation proved anything but. I made the transport arrangements over the phone and was promised an email confirmation, which of course never came. Two phone calls and three unanswered emails later found me standing in the Montego Bay airport, sandwiched between airport customer service agents absorbed in some reptile natural history show and a persistent tout at the neighboring booth who assured me his vehicle would be far superior over anything the Hilton might’ve booked. I finally got an agent at the Hilton on the phone and was told I’d been placed on a shuttle with Jamaica Tours. The agent’s dead-pan expression at the Jamaica Tours counter made it impossible to know whether I actually had a shuttle reservation or not, but I was given a ticket and eventually put in a van, though I did have to argue with the driver to actually get dropped off at my destination (see my Jamaica’s Real Nature blog for details). The next surprise came when I learned that I’d booked an all-inclusive stay, something I’d actually been trying to avoid, and again when I was told I’d booked two queen beds instead of one king, something I KNEW I wouldn’t have done. Nonetheless, the receptionist was pleasant, helpful and understanding throughout. Ultimately, I kept the assigned room because of its superior view to available alternatives. It also proved interesting to see the all-inclusive format, though a bit jarring for me personally. It’s an arrangement that encourages staying on-site at all times, so there were people and entertainment EVERYWHERE. The restaurant with the best lunch menu also happened to be by the chaotic noon-time kid’s entertainment, which was overbearingly loud. I pitied anyone receiving massages in the neighboring “Soothe Cabana” at the moment. While I couldn’t deal with the venue and agreed to eat at an alternative cafe, I really had my heart set on one of the dishes at chaos-ville and was pleased to no end when my waiter offered to run over and get a plate for me. The staff was consistently friendly and helpful, though speed seemed not to be a priority here. Overall the hotel and its location were nice and cruise ship types would probably fawn over the entire experience. For me, I craved a little less carnival-atmosphere, and more freedom and authenticity. It seemed a little wrong that there was no Jamaican fare “fine-dining” option for dinner and I can’t imagine that chubby, old ladies in hula skirts is truly a traditional Jamaican form of entertainment.
Rockhouse Hotel, Negril –
Online booking for the Rockhouse Hotel was complicated to say the least, mostly because I wanted more than one room on the same reservation and this option did not seem to exist. I finally gave up and made two separate bookings under the same name with notes clarifying that it wasn’t a mistake and I did indeed want two rooms. I expected some sort of message saying my requests had been sent, or an email verifying their receipt, but I got nothing. Additionally sure that my unusual online query would create “issues” if reservation struggles elsewhere were any indication, I decided to call the following day to streamline the process. The receptionist I reached tartly chided me for getting straight to business before inquiring about her well-being, then took several minutes before informing me that my online request hadn’t been received.
“Well, can I make a reservation directly with you then?” I asked quickly when I sensed her intention to hang up.
There was a long sigh and she finally acquiesced. It wasn’t an easy process, but I finally hung up with a reservation. Or so I thought.
Despite promises otherwise, no confirmation email arrived and later in the day I received a rather confusing, partially form letter indicating that they didn’t have the rooms I wanted available. We went back and forth via email and finally phone again before it was discovered that my phone reservation was indeed buried in the system. At long last, a confirmation email was sent to my inbox.
I expected similar disorganization when we arrived, but our in-person experience was anything but. The staff was friendly and efficient, the restaurant food was great, the grounds were enchanting and our rooms were an incredible blend of rustic and elegant with unbeatable ocean views. I rarely care whether I’ve had time to properly enjoy my hotel, and frankly spend as little time there as possible so as to appreciate the surroundings, but this was a place I could easily spend a week. In fact, I delayed my itinerary for a few hours to sample the lounge chairs and snorkeling. This is one place I highly recommend irrespective of booking hassles!
Strawberry Hill Island Outpost Hotel, Irish Town –
This is a beautiful resort in the mountains overlooking Kingston and its bay below. All the rooms are relaxing and boast mountainside verandahs, but the hotel is not without issues to detract from the tranquility. Online booking was effortless and required no follow-up, but when we arrived the guard had no record of my reservation. After a prolonged wait, the guard bade us proceed to reception. They kindly greeted us with rum punches, but it was clear that they too were baffled by our presence. I could hear desperate phone calls and computer key clacking in the back office as time passed slowly. At long last, the receptionist returned and asked if there was someone named Sutton in our party, the only name we hadn’t given because she had nothing to do with making the reservation nor billing. It turns out that their online booking program automatically puts the entire reservation under the name of the last guest entered into the system. It’s a non-sensical system to be sure, but equally baffling that the staff hadn’t thought to check that detail earlier in the process if that’s how their booking works. There were a few other minor customer service inconveniences, but the biggest annoyance was food. It proved to be restaurant week, and while it was fun and exciting to explore their multi-course menu the first night, we wanted something different the next night and were shocked to learn that they’d made no consideration for multi-night guests – it would be the same set menu every night this week. Truth be told, the food wasn’t stellar even on the first round and there was nothing I really wanted to eat again. Wasn’t there any way we could order a la carte or off the usual menu? The story changed from one staff member to the next, and sometimes even from the same staff member at different times. It got complicated enough that we thought we’d just avoid the issue entirely by visiting a different local restaurant, but all nearby proved closed. Many broken promises and frustrations later, the issue was finally resolved by the maitre’d coming to our unit and developing a personalized menu. In the end, it was the perfect solution as dining on our own verandah was more relaxed than being in the restaurant anyway. That experience sort of sums up my opinion of the resort in general actually – frustrating hoops to jump through, but it ultimately makes you appreciate the serenity of the setting all that more.
Frenchman’s Cove Resort, Port Antonio –
Frenchman’s Cove Resort looked nothing less than luxurious on its website and maybe it was at one time, but no more. To their credit, they seem to have updated their website since my booking endeavors in October 2013 and there is less of a discrepancy now. At any rate, I submitted my online request and got an email claiming that I would be contacted soon with a firm confirmation. When confirmation never came, I decided to call. The lukewarm phone receptionist inquired my name several times before announcing that I’d never made a reservation. I refrained from suggesting that she might consider apologizing for something having gone awry with their reservation system, and gave her the information again. She reassured me that I was now booked and would receive an email. The email never came so I called yet again and once again discovered that I was not in the system. A different phone receptionist proved more competent and I finally got both a verbal and an electronic confirmation from this conversation, as well as an apology for the inconveniences.
Upon arrival, the parking lot looked like a scene from a major tourist attraction, complete with trinket vendors and large buses. Reception itself was a dark, dank place with an appallingly incompetent receptionist who very nearly declined to check us in because I lacked a local picture ID to accompany my US driver’s license and credit card. At least my reservation was on file. Once past that barrier, the grounds were pretty with lush lawns, impressive trees and a quaint stream that flowed from the entrance into the cliff embanked beach cove. The beach itself was less impressive thanks to the day crowds and an uninspired beach bar and restaurant that considerably detracted from this site’s paradise potential. Our assigned 2-bedroom villa was downright appalling. Yes, it was on a cliff overlooking the ocean, but the view was mostly of vegetation and the villa itself was no less dark and dingy than reception. There was a central hallway of sorts dividing the communal area from the bedrooms that could’ve contained gardens, but instead looked like a boulder pit gone awry and at the moment of our arrival in a rain storm appeared to be a mini-waterfall thanks to an astounding number of leaks in the roof above. The communal area contained a kitchenette, couches and a dining room set that looked like something from a run-down 1960’s motor lodge. The bedroom half of the building looked like a concrete double-wide holding matching side-by-side depressing bedrooms with two single-beds in each, the “master” indicated by a scary rendition of a towel swan covered in ixora flowers. The scene was such an appalling contrast to what I thought I’d booked online, and was so sub-par for the price tag, that we explored neighboring villas. We returned to reception to trade for something nicer as it was clear there was no competition for the rooms. Despite the apparent variety in accommodations we’d noted, the zombie-like receptionist barely even looked up as she claimed that all 2-bedroom villas were the same so no need to switch. Fortunately one in our company was a local guide who’d stayed before and was able to point out the untruth of this statement. The argument then shifted to one of everything else being booked. After much coaxing we were given the keys to a villa that was in the process of being cleaned, or rather cleaners seemed to be taking an extended snack break there, though they quickly stowed their spread and grabbed brooms when we barged in. This unit wasn’t free of the dilapidated 1960’s feel, but was a considerable improvement with no leaks, more space, ambient light and all interiorly-opening rooms. There was additional annoyance about the promise of a guest computer with internet at reception, that our less than helpful receptionist claimed didn’t exist even though it was sitting in full view. We later learned it was broken from the night guard, but why not just say that? Or offer us quick use of her computer given she was just filing her nails?! Bottomline: the grounds are pretty, the beach is ok if you don’t mind a bland building and crowds, and there are some great birds. But the receptionists seem to interpret apathy bordering on rudeness as customer service and the facilities leave a lot to be desired.
Hotel Four Seasons, Kingston –
First of all, it’s important to note that this hotel has no relation to the internationally famous hotel chain of the same name. While I ultimately did not stay here, this was the hotel where my IUCN-Iguana Specialist Group meetings were held. I did initially book here and this was the only Jamaican hotel in my experience where that process was smooth, prompt and error-free. The hotel is located near enough many of the city’s tourist destinations, but on a rather industrial street that verged on dodgy. There were no neighboring or even particularly nearby visitor-oriented businesses, not that you’d want to walk around much by yourself anyway. Nonetheless, the hotel grounds themselves were pleasant. The staff was friendly and competent, managing a 100+ person meeting with no apparent malfunctions, often with simultaneous events happening in other parts of the hotel. The restaurant food was also good, offering many local dishes as well as expected continental fare. I would certainly consider staying here in the future.
The Jamaica Pegasus, Kingston –
Prior to arriving in Kingston, I decided to explore what hotel alternatives there were to the Hotel Four Seasons. The Wyndham Kingston looked like a promising option both in local tourist magazines and online so I tried calling to make a reservation. The phone rang and rang, but there was no answer. It dawned on my local friend then that there had been a fire at the Wyndham a few months prior. Surely there’d be some notification if they’d closed down or were in renovations, right? Wrong. After arriving in Kingston, I found the building still charred and abandoned and so headed next door to The Jamaica Pegasus.
The Pegasus had actually been my second choice based on online research, but a giant pop-up that warned of on-going construction deterred me from making an advanced reservation. So following the Wyndham skeleton, it was time to inspect construction at the Pegasus. I decided the situation must not be too dire when I arrived to see hordes of young Jamaican women streaming in and out of the building in all variety of pumped up heels, highly decorated acrylic nails and updos.
“A nail and hair expo,” the receptionist explained, pointing out that there was still time for me to get done up before it closed, undoubtedly noting my drab attire from a day wandering in the rain.
Beyond my appearances, the receptionist seemed baffled that I was standing before him late in the day with no booking, asking about the construction and wondering whether he had a room open for the entire week. The conversation went in circles for some time before he placated all my construction concerns and I convinced him that I really truly meant to check in on the spot for a week’s stay.
The Jamaica Pegasus proved to be a classic international business hotel. Located in upscale New Kingston just across from Emancipation Park, it was simply vanilla – no frills, little structural character, but a solid choice. The staff was generally friendly and helpful. I say generally because I had near daily problems with my key card losing its programming and the front desk staff refused to change it out. They were quick to blame me every time it happened, absolutely convinced that I was sabotaging their key by, horror of horror, placing it near credit cards. It seems to me that such sensitivity would make for a lame card given an innate tendency to gather similarly credit-card-shaped cards together, but that wasn’t the answer anyway. I meticulously tested this accusatory excuse in an attempt to argue for a new card, but my efforts were for not. On the other hand, a hostess at their weekly poolside barbecue went to great efforts to have a table moved from one side of the pool to the other so I could sit where I wanted without waiting for a table.
Rates included a generous buffet breakfast in the dining room that spanned well beyond continental, offering many typical Jamaican dishes like saltfish and ackee. Self-parking was easy and safe, relying on the Kingston system of a guard distributing cards to drivers upon entry that are to be relinquished to the guard upon exit, verifying ownership of the vehicle – no card, no exit. Not exactly fool-proof, but a widespread system nonetheless. One of the perks of the Pegasus is the exciting and constant array of hosted events – public hair and nail expo the first day, private party for the Haitian Prime Minister my last night. What more could one ask for?
A quick note on Kingston activities, since I didn’t cover the area elsewhere –
I didn’t spend much time exploring Kingston because of my meetings, but it seems to me that the Hope Gardens and Zoo does not get the credit it deserves in guidebooks. The botanical garden portion is an idyllic park and the zoo portion is incredibly well-managed and maintained, particularly given its comparatively small size. As a bonus, they’re shifting their emphasis more and more toward Jamaica’s own wildlife. They’re involved in critical conservation projects, like their head-starting program for the endangered and endemic Jamaican Iguana, and are putting much effort into educating locals about their native flora and fauna. It truly is a beautiful and interesting place to visit, as well as a cause worthy of support.
Unless you’re a die-hard Bob Marley fan who needs to check this off your list, I would say skip the Bob Marley Museum. Honestly, I got so annoyed at the ticket counter that I asked for my money back and didn’t enter the museum at all. Just driving into the complex felt like a tourist trap that made me shudder, and then I was rudely informed that I couldn’t bring my SLR into the museum. Fine, no photography. I’ve got no problem with that, and immediately stowed my camera and promised not to take pictures. It’s not like I was going to be allowed to wander solo. Visits are constrained to their hour-long guided tours, likely in part as a precaution against sneaky photography. But the woman got indignant and started lecturing me, insisting that I either leave my gear in the car or with her. Kingston doesn’t exactly have a compelling reputation for safely leaving cameras about. I certainly wasn’t going to risk losing my camera to see some tourist trap. I waited at the picnic tables while my companion checked it out. Surprisingly, he abandoned the tour after just 20 minutes, a much lesser time than we’d waited for the tour to begin in the first place. Not surprisingly, I was reassured that I hadn’t missed anything. Yes, Bob Marley lived at this house briefly and yes, they’ve covered the walls in Bob Marley pictures and paraphernalia. But it was clear that the real goal of the tour was to shunt folks into the gift shop. The actual house tour that my friend had stayed for was brief, and reportedly rather canned and surficial, then there was to be a short video and a prolonged opportunity to visit the souvenir area. No thanks. In my opinion, this tourist trap is not worth the aggravation and price tag.
Devon House is a national heritage site famed locally for its ice cream shop. Unfortunately, the ice cream shop, the great house and most of the boutiques built in what appeared to be converted stables were closed during the time I had available. Basically, I missed the main reasons to visit this destination, but I can attest to the fact that the grounds are beautiful and the shops and restaurants are clearly a popular venue.
The current town at Port Royal does not live up to the name’s glorious and exciting history, but it’s a near essential visit for any intrigued with Caribbean history… aka. pirates, and who’s not interested in pirates? Fort Charles, the original 1600’s fort that Port Royal developed around, is the main tourist attraction. The remaining architecture is well-maintained and there are small but enlightening museum galleries packed with artifacts and information. Some of the accounts of the earthquake that literally liquified half the city into the earth’s depths were truly goose-bump inspiring. Port Royal also boasts the University of the West Indies’ Port Royal Marine Laboratory and Biodiversity Centre that has an interactive exhibit room and offers environmental tours of the surrounding area. And then there is Gloria’s Seafood Restaurant. There are actually two locations of this restaurant only a few blocks apart. The service is slow, but the food is worth the wait and the waterfront location is particularly good for observing town life below.